This is Michele’s second guest post on my blog – the first also focusing on the disclosure process. She is also part of the Spoonie Entrepreneur School, and is closing out the virtual summit with her talk “Making work work for you” at 12 PM EST today!
“Well, I hope you can do the job,” the HR Director said to me after I had just disclosed my invisible disability at a new job.
And just like that, I felt “put on notice,” and unsupported.
Had my disclosure just backfired?
Managing disability in the workplace has significant challenges. Whether in an existing job, at a new job, or in your job search, disability issues can present on many fronts.
When, where, and to whom do you disclose?
What support and accommodations can you ask for, and how and whom do you ask?
Disability disclosure is the act of telling someone, whether at work, in the community, etc., that you identify as a person with a disability.
Issues of disclosure can arise from this identity act, and beyond, such as sharing specifics about your disability experience.
Whether your disability is visible or invisible may impact your disclosure sequence.
A visible disability may be something that can be “seen” by the use of a support aide, such as a wheelchair, cane, or service dog.
An invisible disability is something that cannot be “seen,” such as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, hearing impairments, or Bipolar Disorder.
With a visible disability, disclosure is not usually a choice, but beyond whatever is “seen,” the person does have a choice as to how much information he/she/they want to or need to share.
But let’s start from the beginning of the work experience — the job posting and application process.
Disclosure Considerations Before Applying
It’s a good idea to have a disclosure plan before you begin applying for jobs. A disclosure plan is deciding what, how much, and to whom you will disclose information about your disability.
As I’ll suggest later, using social networks is a great way to find jobs and learn about a company’s workplace culture.
Decide ahead of time if and when you are planning to disclose your disability and what information you will disclose. That goes for both your potential employers and your networks.
Job applications can, and often do, ask for “voluntary” disclosure, but your disclosure is not required to apply for a job.
There’s usually an option such as “Prefer not to answer” or something similar.
That’s the one I usually select.
As a person with invisible disabilities, I usually operate from a “need to know” basis at the workplace.
An important note: If you are applying for a job with the United States federal government and you have a disability, you can apply under the Schedule A Letter.
The federal government specifically seeks to hire people with disabilities, and this is one of the few times I would disclose from the start.
If you will need accommodations for the interview, such as enlarged text of any print material, an assistive listening device, oral questions instead of print questions, and/or an accessible entrance, you can disclose on the application or when you are called for an interview. It is your choice.
The Job Search
When searching for a job, the first thing I want to encourage you to do is be selective and open.
Is that a contradiction? Not really.
Be selective about what jobs you apply for based on your desires, your skills, and your needs.
Don’t read a job description looking for things you can’t do. Instead, look for and apply to jobs that fit your job requirements.
Do you need a specific location?
Do you need part-time work to manage medical treatments or disability benefits?
Do you want remote work?
Structure your job search so it makes the most of your energy and time, and avoids burnout.
Each week set a realistic goal for the number of jobs you want to apply. (“Realistic” is relative to your life and time. I usually recommend 2-4 jobs as a good place to start.)
For each job, research the company. Who you work for can be just as important as the actual job you want.
In this day of internet openness, you can usually find commentary from past, and maybe even current, employees on the work life at a company.
A simple search on a standard search engine (like Google) or a job posting site (like Indeed) can give you great insight into how a company treats its employees.
Of course, the larger the company the more likely you are to find feedback about workplace culture.
This is also a good time to work your networks, such as high school or college alumni groups, neighborhood message boards, etc.
Ask if anyone works for the company you’re interested in or knows anyone they can connect you with.
If you’re comfortable with disclosing your disability within one or some of your networks, you may be able to find out about a company’s efforts regarding inclusion and accommodations.
After researching the companies and working your networks, it’s time to customize your resume and apply.
I recommend that you have a general resume ready to go, with specific areas on the resume you customize for each job. You do not need to mention anything about your disability on your resume.
Customize your resume by connecting key terms in the job posting with your experience and skills.
Now that you’ve been called for an interview, it’s time to reassess your disclosure plan.
If you did disclose on the application, prepare what level of information you are comfortable sharing, or if you decide not to give any additional information, that’s your right.
There are some legal boundaries a potential employer has to stay within during an interview.
Legally, the only thing an employer can ask during an interview is whether you can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodations.
They cannot ask you if it’s “with” or “without.”
They cannot ask you what a reasonable accommodation for you would be.
If you choose not to disclose your disability during an interview, which is usually my suggestion, the potential employer cannot ask you anything about disability.
You got the job! Congrats! Now, do you disclose?
Whether you disclose on the job depends on a few factors:
- You need workplace accommodations.
- Your disability can have a sudden onset of a flare in which you will need accommodations immediately.
- You choose to disclose to ensure you’re protected and/or to share with your coworkers because your disability is a part of your identity.
In these examples, disclosure can be formal or informal.
Formal disclosure comes into play if you need a reasonable accommodation to perform an essential job function, such as an ergonomic desk chair or a screen reader for computer-focused jobs.
You will need to disclose through the human resources department, and documentation is typically required for accommodations.
The ADA states that in order to be protected by its statutes a person must disclose a disability; however, when you do this is up to you.
But remember, protection is not retroactive. Disclose first, protection second.
Informal disclosure is deciding how much and with whom you want or need to disclose to your coworkers. In most cases, unless you are formally asking for an accommodation, you don’t need to disclose to anyone.
If you want to disclose to your coworkers, I suggest getting to know them first.
While we’d like it not to be the case, disability still carries stigma and discrimination with it.
Get to know your coworkers to see if you feel comfortable and safe to disclose.
In the case of a disability that can involve sudden onset of symptoms that require accommodations, you may choose to disclose to your supervisor and human resources in advance or at the time of a flare.
Managing expectations — yours and theirs
You’ve made the decision to disclose your disability to your supervisor. First, check-in with yourself about why you want to disclose.
Is it because you feel that you are not meeting your boss’s expectations?
Has something been said to you about your performance and you feel you need to explain your disability?
Is it because you trust your boss and feel comfortable disclosing a personal aspect of your life?
Knowing how your disability impacts you in the workplace is good information for you to gather from previous work experiences.
When communicating with your boss, use objective information and examples of scenarios to give him/her/them a clearer understanding of what your disability may look like at work.
Understanding how your disability impacts you is also a good thing for you to gain insight.
This can help you manage your own expectations for the new job and not overdo it.
As you get to know your coworkers, you may choose to disclose to them in an informal way. Again, manage how much, where and when you share.
Sharing can be empowering and also intimate in a sense.
It can take relationships deeper.
Make sure you feel safe with the person and that your information is safe with them.
Disability stigma and discrimination is real and can be traumatic.
If you feel that you are experiencing discrimination or bullying on the job, contact human resources right away and document the incidents.
For far too long, people with disabilities were overlooked and refused work simply because of having a disability.
It didn’t matter that the person was qualified and capable to perform the work.
Thanks to the activism of many, such as Judy Heumann, we have the opportunity and the protection to pursue meaningful careers.
A Quick Legal Note
The Americans with Disabilities Act and its Amendments protect people with disabilities in the workplace.
Important things to remember:
- you must disclose to receive protection
- only companies with 15 or more employees are covered
- document every interaction you have with a company regarding your disability.
Michele Harold is a disability services professional in higher education and a career coach and resume writer for disabled people. When not working or talking about work, which is her passion, she can be found reading or catching up on true crime podcasts, or hanging out in the mountains with her fur crew of dogs and cats. Michele thrives as a disabled woman with fibromyalgia, behcets disease, and depression. Connect with her at @atlcareercoach on Instagram, or check out her website.